Saturday, 29 August 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Calf's Foot Jelly/Chicken Stock from Pollyanna

Calf's Foot Jelly is wholesome, medicinal nourishment for invalids, according to Pollyanna Whittier and her dutiful aunt. Pollyanna devotedly delivers bowlfuls of it to the feeble Mrs Snow to give her strength, although in the end we realise that Mrs Snow is quite well in body, and only rather low in spirits. Thus, although regular portions of Calf's Foot Jelly was appreciated and nutritious, it was the frequent visits from sprightly young Pollyanna, and her large doses of gladness and enthusiasm for life and people, that truly brought Mrs Snow back to full health. 

As much as I would love to boil a Calf's Foot, I have none to hand. My butcher, though brilliant, does not provide these delicacies, so it is with a heavy heart that I resort to the easy alternative outlined in Turkish Delight and Treasure Hunts by Jane Brocket. 

This slightly less gruesome option is something that I make regularly - chicken stock. 

During the autumn and winter I would reserve 4 chicken frames every week and collect them every Tuesday when passing the butchers after my morning's work at the library, on the way home. I would then get out our big stock pot and set the chicken frames boiling away on the hob while I drew, with the tantalising smell of chicken wafting to my nostrils and the cats yowling and chirruping in a mixture of delight and dismay.

I know you can just as easily use a pressure cooker, which we do have, but it is Andy's tool of choice while I favour saucepans and casserole pots and I am not interested in using it. I like to see how things are doing, and taste regularly.

I've rather got out of the chicken stock habit in these balmy summer months, so it was nice to get the chicken bubbling away again, especially as I was getting over a nasty cold.

I just used two frames this time, and kept coming to check it, waiting till the water had reduced substantially, producing a honey-coloured, nectar-like, golden juice of wonder, full of flavour and almost sweet with its pure chicken yumminess. 

I then used a sieve and a funnel to separate the bones from the liquid, as by now the carcas had completely collapsed. 

Once I had all the liquid set aside, I spent a few minutes picking off the nicest bits of meat from the bones and had myself a very nourishing late-afternoon snack that I absolutely relished. I put the chicken pieces in a little dish and added a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Then I spooned over some of the hot chicken broth, (with the cats ogling at me in disbelief) then sat back and savoured every warming mouthful. For those of you who are sympathetic to the plight of cats, I can assure you that their persistence paid off and they got their chicken in the end.

I can recommend that every now and then you give yourself this little bit of care. It's cheap and it's easy, and is to an Oxo cube what a homemade Victoria Sponge is to a Supermarket one. And if you have access to a Calf's Foot, I'm sure that's just as delicious, if not quite as appealing.

Fictional Food Adventure: FINAL BOOK: Reading Anne of Green Gables by L.M Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables is a part of me. 

I have loved it from the moment I first saw it. I first discovered it on the tv. I don't know how old I was. Maybe 8 or so. And it appeared out of nowhere into our lounge; this green and gorgeous Avonlea filled with Apple Trees and Blossom, Plum Cakes and poetry, and Anne. 

I just adored everything about it. It was perfection. It was pure heaven. Mum and I used to sob together over dear Matthew and laugh hysterically over Anne's face when she admitted she'd let a mouse drown in the plum sauce.

When I read the books I found them to be comfortingly familiar, with some extra treasures not shown in the tv series. 

When I was supposed to be revising for my GCSEs, I spent most of that wonderful first piece of freedom called Study Leave, in the haven of my garden. I sat on the grass in leafy shade, and read the entire series, from Anne's first glimpse of Green Gables, to her own children growing up, decades later. Although I wouldn't recommend this method of exam preparation to everyone, I believe that, for me, it was the peace and escape I needed to avoid worrying about the looming exams. I did just fine and was ecstatic with my grades, and that little period of my life will stay with me forever. 

It's been a while since I picked up a copy of Anne of Green Gables, perhaps because I know it so well that it is always accessible in my mind. I say "a" copy, because I have many. There's the copy I bought with my own pocket money years ago, and the copy I bought later because it had a Lauren Child illustration on the cover. Then there's the version that's part of the Puffin "In Bloom" series of classic children's fiction that are so gorgeously printed and bound that I need them all on my shelf. And then there are the copies that I don't yet own, but one day will. 

Reading Anne of Green Gables is a delight and a treat. When I am reading it, I am visu-mentally in Avonlea, surrounded by all the beauty that Anne revels in.  Anne has a deep appreciation for the beauty around her and the book is full of descriptions of dusk and mornings and evenings, and light and colour and flowers and trees and water and views. It is a richly gorgeous place. Even if my reality is concrete and brick walls, instead of wooden verandas and rolling meadows, it's lovely to have such a place as Avonlea to climb into. As well as the scenery, it's full of brilliant characters and countless hilarious scenarios, hope, love and wonder.

I don't think I need to say much more about the book itself. If you have read it, you already understand its wonders, and if you've never read it, I leave the many treasures still buried within for you to discover and cherish. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Toasted Cheese from Heidi by Joanna Spyri.

Before I set out on this fictional food adventure, Heidi was one of the books that ALWAYS made me want to eat what Heidi was eating. If I had composed such a compendium as Jane Brocket's Turkish Delights and Treasure Hunts, Heidi would have been at the top of the list with no hesitation. The countless mentions of fresh goats' milk always sent me dashing the kitchen for a glass of cold milk, and when she toasts cheese over the fire with her Grandfather, it made me so hungry and I longed to do the same myself. They were such simple, hearty meals; bread, cheese, milk. Everything seemed full of the freshness and goodness of the Alp, and fresh air always makes you appreciate food more.

This recipe does not represent much of a culinary challenge; it is simply toasting cubes of cheese over a fire. But what a treat! It does make a big difference depending on what type of cheese you use. Cheddar is a rapid melter so would be running all down the fork before it ever had a chance of goldening, so you need a firm, dense cheese. Jane Brocket recommends Gruyere, which sounds very suitable.  

It's been a bit of a damp summer and we've not had many barbeques, and yet, being summer, we've not had any log fires indoors either. But one August evening, Andy and I were invited to a Firepit Fun evening in the garden of our friends' house. So i seized the opportunity for sociable cheese toasting and dashed off down to the supermarket to obtain a goodly lump of Gruyere from the Deli counter, and some loaves of bread. Jane Brocket suggests a Rye or Sourdough loaf, and from past experience with (sorry) Tescos excellent bread, we knew they do a mighty fine oval, soft, nutty brown Rye loaf, and an oval, soft, white Sourdough loaf. 
They are so good you can just sit there and keep eating it til it's all gone, without anything on it! When I went to the bread shelves, however, the spaces for both types of bread were empty. After some enquiries, and waiting for the bread guy to turn up with a freshly laden trolley, he was able to grab me one of each so I came away happy and excited. 

It had been sort of drizzling all day, but in a barely-there kind of way; not enough to put out a fire! So off we went with our cheese and bread and toasting fork, and gathered with friends around a wonderful roaring firepit, with Marshmallows and amazing Chocolate Cake. 

I cut up the cheese into cubes and people started getting interested. Several people seemed to think it was a very sensible idea, but were very surprised by the appearance of out toasting fork. Doesn't everyone have one? I grew up in a Victorian house, with a hearth, and the bronze fork was a familiar part of the hearth scene, always propped against the bricks at the ready. When Andy and I bought our own Victorian house, that first Christmas I found a wonderful and very similar toasting fork in our local charity shop and wrapped it for Andy's stocking. I assumed that everyone who owned a hearth would have one, but obviously I was wrong. And no, pokers really don't grip the cheese well enough, as we found out. I started off the toasting, rotating the cheese over the glowing embers til it was starting to gently bubble. 

Then I pulled it off the hot metal prongs using a piece of bread ripped from the loaf, and gobbled it all up together. It was certainly delicious, and fun, and good, and the fork was pulled out of my hand and the rounds of cheese toasting continued as the rain gathered momentum and fell heavily onto the many umbrellas in the dusk. It was love;y to have introduced the tastiness of Gruyere to many people who had never had it before, including one lady who said if she'd known what it was she wouldn't have tried it. And they kept coming back for more! So, it wasn't quite a still, clear golden night on the Alps, but it was a wonderful British summer evening amongst lovely people. 

Soon, we were all wet enough to appreciate going indoors for frothy hot chocolates, silly games and chatter til it was time for our warm, soft, dry beds. 

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Heidi by Joanna Spyri

Well, 'Heidi' is very dear. I always loved her, and her Grandfather, the Alm Uncle. 

At first, my Mum would read this story to me at bedtimes, and then when I was older I would read it to myself, along with the two sequels, Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children. This time around, I listened to it on cd, while sitting at the kitchen table cutting out about a million Hello Kitty biscuits to bake for a 4 yr old friend's birthday. It certainly made the time fly.

I always had a very clear picture of the Swedish mountain where Heidi went to live. And it has stayed the same for every re-reading, never changing. The angles from which I see everything is always the same too. I wanted to be there, on that wondrous Alp, in the fresh air, with the flowers and the milk and cheese and bread! But, I feel like I had my own little Alp to grow up on - the fields that sloped away from our house, when I was little, felt immense and steep. In the spring they would be filled with golden buttercups and in the summer they were an ocean of waving grasses. They were mine to skip about in, and feel free and wild in. I loved to look up and see the buzzards circling and gliding on the thermals, and hear their cry. When I hear a buzzard now, it is a sound that takes me instantly home to those fields. And I understand Heidi's homesickness when she is whisked away to Frankfurt to live among bricks and carriage wheels, far away from the wind in the pine trees. I still miss the sound of the grass rippling around me, and the surrounding greenness everywhere. 

'Heidi' is one of those refreshing novels that remind you of all the good things, and of simple happiness and goodness. I love how she is so thoughtful of others, and whenever anything good happens to her she wants to share it. Or if she is given something, she saves it for the people she loves who she knows will really appreciate it. She feels things strongly, and so her joy is a full one. 

I will always treasure these books. They are a part of me. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Pollyanna by Eleanor H Porter

I grew up as a fervent Hayley Mills fan, encouraged by and enjoyed with my Mum; just about tolerated by my patient Dad. He would go and find something do to elsewhere if Mum and I decided we were in the mood for That Darn Cat, Summer Magic, or Pollyanna. This was probably more often than he would prefer but he was usually very tactful, with only the occasional derisive comment slipping out, and off he would go to the garden, saying, "Oh no, it's Hayley Smells!"

Pollyanna was one of the Hayley Mills films that Mum and I enjoyed together the most. When I went to secondary school, I made a friend who gave me my own copy of the book one Christmas, along with a copy of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Both were Wordsworth Classics, the kind you could buy in W.H.Smiths for a pound, and the story of Rebecca at age eleven was a real discovery. I did launch in and read Pollyanna too, and loved it as much as the film. I have no idea what happened to that copy, so I reinvested in a copy recently. It's a shame that Pollyanna hasn't had a new edition out lately. It deserves a gorgeously illustrated front cover just as much as all the classics that Oxford and Puffin are often producing. 

This is one of those life-affirming stories of an innocent, and ever cheerful young girl, that is a real tonic in today's society. Pollyanna's determination to experience life through her father's legacy of his Glad Game is what nurtures the happiness of those around her, and ultimately her own. 

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading Pollyanna again. I'd forgotten the differences between the film and book. For those of you who know the Hayley Mills Pollyanna, in the book there are no massive iced cakes, no big fair, and no falling out of a tree. But the rest of the essentials don't differ too much, and Pollyanna's joy-giving, lively influence over Mrs Snow, John Pendleton, the whole town, and her own stern aunt is wonderful to see. At many times during the book I grinned or giggled, welled up, or relished a warm swell in my heart.

Like so many books of this period, there is so much that we should all take forward with us in our lives. So much has been forgotten or discarded which is still so valuable. I will cherish Pollyanna just as much as ever, and when my copy of the dvd arrives in the post, I'll need to get my Mum cosied up with me in my lounge to enjoy watching that Hayley 'Smells' charming the socks off everyone. 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Cress Sandwiches from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

You would think that growing a little bit of Cress wouldn't present too much of a problem, would you? I mean, small children produce great results with apparent ease, don't they? 

So Andy and I excitedly "planted" our cress seeds with high hopes and not a single worry. We watered it regularly and made sure the kitchen roll was always moist. The seeds germinated beautifully but then seemed to become unhappy. We don't know what went wrong, but we started again. 

The next lot grew happily and quickly, but I had obviously sewn them too liberally, as about half germinated first and the second half were only half-grown when the first half were tall enough to cut. I held off cutting it though, as I didn't want to cut into the shorter half before they were tall enough. I hoped they would catch up, but it all then seemed to get top heavy and kept floppping over, despite my valiant efforts to help it. In the end I did another trayful, which germinated happily but seemed to sparse to support itself. 

I think now, although I am still a sucker for the germination of seeds and the growth of young shoots, I have spent long enough devoting my time to checking on cress. I know for a fact that our local green grocer sells it in little boxes for less money than my pack of seeds and it's all the same height, and it all stands upright. Surely, growing cress should be a walk in the park?

I've never eaten a Cress Sandwich, but it does sound wonderfully fresh and crisp. Yet, out of all the snacks listed in that first river picnic with Ratty and Mole, and all the subsequent picnics, luncheons and suppers, there was one thing that sounded even more enticing. Mulled Ale on a cold December night. Not being a drinker of alcohol, I don't know why this took my fancy so much, but Ale sounds like such a nice, earthy, wholesome thing that I wish I liked it. Maybe with spices it could become something really special. Maybe come the winter it's worth a try. But for now, Cress Sandwiches are on the menu and we need some cress!

In true Mole and Ratty fashion, I felt these Cress Sandwiches needed to be eaten by the river, but every time we planned to go, something would crop up. Yet, after horrible summer colds and chilly July rainstorms, we finally got to our favourite stretch of riverbank, one clear blue Saturday in early August. 

Hoping this would be the case, I had stocked up on fresh white bread and a tub of cress the day before, on my weekly Friday high street shop-up.  On Saturday morning, Andy baked a tray of sausages and I boiled some eggs. We packed up a big flask of tea and the last of our homemade raspberry cordial, and with our fishing nets, wading shoes, jam jars and rugs, we headed off to Oak Beach. This is a wonderful part of the River Culm, close to my parents house. Everyone else is always passing straight by, walking dogs and not even stopping to admire the view. 

But we linger, under the shade of a wide-spreading oak, paddling, swimming, fishing, picnicking, snoozing, exploring and soaking up the essence of a quiet little English river. A Dipper alighted on a nearby branch, huge striped Hawker Dragonflies zoomed over the water, tiny, exquisite minnows darted through the sunlit shallows while larger ones cruised through the darker, shaded depths further out in the middle of the river. Water gurgled under an overhanging Alder, over a bed of rocks, and flowed smoothly round the bend into the dark pool that I love to swim in. 

Almost as soon as we had laid down our rug, Andy asked if it was too soon to start eating. Of course, there are no set times with picnics. The food is there and so are you, so you can eat when you're hungry. I chomped at a cold sausage while cooling my ankles in the shallows, while Andy brewed tea. Then we nestled ourselves into the rugs and enjoyed our first ever Cress sandwiches. They were generously spread with butter, and sprinkled with salt and pepper. And, out in the fresh air, surrounded by trees and grass and water, a little something green and crunchy was ever so welcome. We both enjoyed them, but I did pack some ham to add in if we both felt that it was needed. Afterwards we realised we could have sliced out egg in with it but it wasn't really needed. 

What could be nicer than a picnic by the river? If you ask Mole or Ratty, or me, not a lot. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

I was really not looking forward to reading The Wind in the willows. Frankly I was rather dreading it, and put it off so long that it is now the penultimate book in my Fictional Food Adventure. In so doing, I have actually saved myself a wonderful treasure because, most unexpectedly, I have fallen in love with it. 

I have always known the gist of this story and have heard bits of it time and time again. But never have I embarked on the whole book for myself. I always found Toad so inconceivably irritating that it put me off the rest of the book. But my parents adore The Wind in the Willows. It is very dear to my Mum, and Dad reads the Christmassy parts of it to her every Decmeber as part of their festive winter reading. Little phrases from it have been spoken around the house throughout my life and my Dad still quotes little nuggets as a matter of course. Now, reading it myself, the words leap off the page in my Dad's voice. And certain sentences now take on a whole new meaning: "I see it all now," and "whack 'em and whack 'em and whack 'em!

Badger is a much softer, more kindly fellow than the gruff, antisocial character I took him for. Toad is much more easy to care for, seen through the eyes of his loyal friends,  although he tests the limits of their patience, and I had no idea the Mole lived with Ratty at River Bank so long away from his own Mole End, having such lovely times with his new friend. 

The writing is beautiful and masterly, and the feel of the book is so gloriously cosy and delicious that I kept wanting to get back to it and be in that wonderful place once more. A world brimming with life and luscious undergrowth, all the sights and sounds and smells of the river, full of bulging picnic hampers and fireside suppers; an appreciation of simple pleasures where home is a beloved thing worth fighting for.

I am charmed to have found another dear book to love. I can honestly say that if it was not for this challenge, I would not have been tempted to pick it up. So with this surprising outcome, I intend to change my ways and not be so easily put off, but to go and give books a try that I've ignored.